Game reviews: Firewatch is a new vision of gaming, but Layers of Fear relies on clichés

Firewatch is a fascinating addition to the ‘walking simulator’ genre, but Layers of Fear relies too much on obvious tropes from the world of horror

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 2:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 2:00am


Campo Santo

We talk a lot here about gaming’s limitations and how genre tropes can often stifle an otherwise brilliant release. For indie developers who want to immerse audiences in a fully interactive story, the key has been to ditch the gameplay altogether. The name for this fascinatingly minimalist genre? “Walking simulator”.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Gone Home were two great recent examples, each free from frustrating puzzles or silly quick-time events, but rich in the atmosphere of pure exploration. Firewatch (available for the PC, Mac, Linux and PS4)is another in this vein, and while it doesn’t measure up completely, there’s plenty to like in this engaging mystery.

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You’re thrown deep into the woods at the start, as a fire lookout volunteer working in a dense forest. Like you’d imagine a solo adventure in the woods to be, the experience is both calming and eerily frightening, a beautifully designed mix of soothing birdsong and dappled sun, coupled with voices travelling on the wind and the dark of the night creeping up on its seemingly endless distances.

The story takes place over a series of days set across an entire summer, and your only real interaction is with your boss Delilah, who you communicate with via walkie-talkie. Firewatch’s real strength lies here, in its brilliantly realised novel-like characterisation, using equal parts humour and pathos to personify and bring to life its two main players.

Where it falters slightly is in how those characters set in motion the events of the story: there’s a sense of convenience to some of the proceedings, things that seem just too handy or that ignore tangents that seem worth exploring. Coupled with that are the attempts (few and far between) to inject a bit of gameplay, and many items you collect having seemingly no bearing on forwarding the plot.

It’s a minor problem, but an important one nonetheless – this new wave of walking simulators initially seem like they need little creativity, but it’s in fact the exact opposite. Like any great piece of illuminating fiction, they’re all about subtlety and precision, about a brilliant story well-told and made to look all too easy.

While Firewatch is largely structurally sound, its small mistakes sometimes see it collapse in a burning heap.

Layers of Fear

Bloober Team

The horror genre is one of the most saturated in video games, a world heavily inspired by ’70s and ’80s grind house flicks full of zombies, serial killers, aliens and other creatures to be avoided and/or killed. Rare is the release that takes its inspiration from the decades of horror fiction preceding that blood-spattered period – and for that at least, Layers of Fear is to be greatly admired.

Available for the PS4, Xbox One, PC and Mac, it’s set amid a labyrinthine Victorian world of darkened hallways, maze-like corridors, and foreboding rooms, and on the surface, there’s little that seems to separate Layers from the mansion tropes of modern gaming. But it’s in the concept that it particularly stands out – in the surface-level idea that you’re a painter struggling to complete his masterpiece, and in the deeper meaning that there’s no monster but yourself, a broken man struggling to hold on to his sanity.

The creative inspirations here are obvious – the literary works of Poe and Mary Shelley, the frightful paintings of Goya and Bacon – and for much of its initial playtime, Layers balances the two media well. It’s only when you actually have to start doing things that its cracks begin to show.

The game suffers from the same problems of many indie releases: a creative exterior, sure, but riddled with clichés within. As we noted, years upon years of horror releases have created a certain set of tropes that one must follow if one is to find any modicum of success.

Slamming doors, ghoulish sounds, a creepy child’s drawing that serves absolutely zero purpose, a series of repetitive light puzzles – Layers of Fear is guilty of serving up such old chestnuts, and the game ends up feeling almost comic as you play through its three-hour running time, an almost laughably contradictory turn considering its fairly original concept.

Layers of Fear promises a lot – an artistic take on a gruesome genre, an original idea in a world of hackneyed convention. There’s plenty to appreciate here without a doubt, and it does initially lull you into the belief that there’s much beneath its beautiful surface. But like the old paintings in the mansion whose eyes have been cut out, the game isn’t nearly as layered as it’d like to be.